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Who has the larger coattails?

A Democratic win in Dennis Hastert's Illinois district may be proof of Barack Obama's potential influence -- or it may just have exposed a seriously damaged GOP brand
/ Source: National Journal

The two big winners in last Saturday's special election to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert were Bill Foster, of course, and Sen. Barack Obama, who was notably featured in a TV ad Foster used to seal the deal in Illinois' GOP-heavy 14th District. Republican candidate Jim Oberweis campaigned with Sen. John McCain but never featured him -- or even Hastert -- in his ads. In the first proxy battle between McCain and Obama (think of it as sort of a spring training warm-up), Obama can credibly claim a win.

Sure, Illinois is Obama's home state, and Oberweis was a flawed candidate who carried high disapproval ratings even among Republicans. And there's no evidence that Obama won the race for Foster, who was ahead in polling even before the ad went up. Even so, the fact that a first-time Democratic candidate would run in a district that President Bush carried with 55 percent in 2004, while at the same time boasting of a potential Democratic nominee's support, is a departure from conventional thinking. Candidates in Foster's situation usually avoid mentioning -- and often run away from -- the top of the ticket. Now Obama has good reason to crow about his coattails credibility.

Just as worrisome for Republicans should be the fact that their tried-and-true "tax-and-spend liberal" attack fell flat against Foster. Again, the credibility of the messenger (and the opponent) is important. But if Republicans can't win suburban/exurban districts by touting their fiscal discipline, it suggests a deeply damaged GOP brand -- and bigger problems ahead for GOP House candidates.

The question, of course, is whether having McCain at the top of the ticket will ultimately help recalibrate voter attitudes toward the party. Today, Bush remains the head of the party in the minds of most voters. Even so, it's fair to question the relevance of 2004 results in evaluating the competitiveness of a district. In a "normal" election, it'd be fair for candidates to write off districts carried by the opposing party's presidential nominee by 55 percent or more. But in this political environment, it's probably fair to knock 3 to 5 percentage points off of Bush's 2004 showing. In other words, treat a district that Bush carried with 53 percent as one he just narrowly carried with 50 percent or narrowly lost with 48 percent. Currently, 34 Republican incumbents sit in districts that Bush carried with 55 percent of the vote or less.

Are superdelegates paying attention? The Florida-Michigan "revote or no vote" is a nice sideshow, providing some notable theatrics. But it's also clear that the delegates awarded from these states won't be enough to allow Obama or Clinton to sew up the nomination. That will be up to the superdelegates. And with new polls from ABC News/Washington Post [PDF] and Newsweek showing Clinton climbing among Democrats and independents, Obama no longer has a lock on the electability argument.

For example, in the ABC/Post poll, Obama beats McCain in general election matchups by a larger margin than Clinton (12 points to 6 points), but both carry independents by roughly the same margin. Clinton took 50 percent of independents, while Obama carried 49 percent. The reason for Obama's bigger margin overall? His stronger showing among Republicans. He took 16 percent of Republicans while Clinton was supported by just 9 percent. However, it's dangerous to assume that these Republicans are going to stick with Obama once the fall campaign begins in earnest.

This makes the coattails argument even more important for Obama. Not so long ago, many Democrats thought having Clinton at the top of the ticket would hurt their chances at making big gains downballot. The presence of so many red-state legislators on Obama's endorsement list is a testament to this concern. Yet now, given the huge number of GOP retirements, NRCC funding woes, and Foster's victory last weekend, the undercard argument may not carry the same punch.

In fact, the question now is whether the Ill.-14 loss will discourage more potential GOP challengers and encourage even more retirements. While filing deadlines have passed in many big states (California, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania), some notable states remain, including New York (where Democrats have three freshmen) and Florida.